Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scarp Calling

After a calm night tied to the Leverburgh pier, we watched the three St Kilda day-boats head out at 8am. The island on our plate for that day is as interesting as St Kilda, and much less visited: the island of Scarp. After breakfast we headed up the Sound of Harris, out past Toe Head, and into the Atlantic. After two hours of steaming we circled the top of Scarp to motor into Cearstaigh Bay at its north end. It's a good spot for eagles, and we floated for a while searching, but none were seen.

Cearstaigh Bay
From there we headed down the east side to drop the hook off Scarp Village. The island looked as inviting as ever from the sea, and we were soon ashore.

Scarp Landing
Like St Kilda, Scarp has a line of old blackhouse dwellings, long abandoned, and we started our tour by wandering among them. In 1881 over 200 people called Scarp home, but by 1971 the population had dwindled to seven. The island’s moment of fame came in 1934, when Gerhard Zucker experimented with rocket powered mail delivery. After the fuse was lit, instead of shooting 1000 feet across to Harris, the rocket exploded, and the mail got a little charred. Zucker's rocket experiments were depicted in the 2004 film The Rocket Post, which was filmed on nearby Taransay,

Our next stop was to take a look at the crumbling remnants of the school. It's a sad sight, but next to it stands the beautifully redone church. When I first visited Scarp (2004), the church was also in a sad state; full of sheep, half its floorboard rotted, and there were missing doors and windows. But unlike the school, it was rescued several years ago.

Ruined school (left), restored church (right)
After exploring the village we headed to the top of Beinn fo Tuath. Even though mist topped the distant hills of Harris, the view over to the three large sea-lochs that cut into the west of Lewis is truly spectacular. A group photo was called for.

Atop Scarp - misty hills of Harris in the distance
From the top we descended to Loch a’ Mhuilinn (Mill Loch). It is a special spot, for lying in the stream that runs from the loch to the sea are a pair of Norse mills, their millstones still in place. It was here that Alan fired up his drone and got some footage flying over the mill loch and the interior of Scarp.

Loch a' Mhuilinn
Alan prepares the drone
Following the stream downhill we came to the mills, their grinding stones still in place. For more photos of Hebridean mills (including Scarp's) see this link.

Where the mill stream reaches the sea we came to Mol Mor. The Gaelic name means big pebbly beach, but it's locally known as Treasure Beach, for the occasional treasures that wash ashore. There was no sign of anything valuable, unless you treasure old fishing floats and plastic flotsam.

Looking for treasure...
An easy coastal walk took us back to the village, where there was time for a brief visit with Brian and Shiela Harper, who call Scarp home part of the year. Their resilience in making it to Scarp every year is impressive. Getting here, even in the summer, can often be a challenge. See the August 6, 2013 post for photos of Brian, single-handedly, landing his inflatable on a windy, and wavy, summer day.

It was getting late, and so we had to leave Scarp in our wake to steam five miles around the Ardveg Penninsula to look for an anchorage for the night in Loch Hamanavay. Hamanavay is the one of the most remote, and least visited places in the Western Isles. We were in the Hebridean Back of Beyond.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ensay Attempt - Then Over to Rodel

In the morning of May 22nd we left the Small Isles in our wake to journey up the Minch. After four hours on a northwesterly course we passed the dramatic headland of Neist Point, with its lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of Skye.

Neist Point
Another two hours of steaming took us into the Sound of Harris, where we set our sights on trying to land on Ensay. I was hoping to get ashore so we could wander its rolling hills and take a look at its chapels and standing stone. The anchor was dropped just off Ensay House, but the wind was too strong and it wouldn't hold.

Ensay (2016)
It was a disappointment not to be able to land, but the sea and wind don't always cooperate with the best laid plans. If you are interested in Ensay, you can find a stunning photo of the interior of Ensay House that also shows the chapel at John Maher Photography - see the first photo on the left. (William, thanks for the tip on Maher's work, it's amazing stuff.) You can see more photos of Ensay in the February 27, 2017 post.

Unable to anchor off Ensay, Mark decided to motor over to Leverburgh, where we would spend the night tied to its pier. Leverburgh is not one of the most scenic spots in the isles, but once ashore we left the cluttered harbour behind to follow a meandering grassy shore path to St Clement’s church at Rodel.

On the path to Rodel

St Clement's Church
I think St Clement's is the best example of early church architecture in the Hebrides. A unique feature is that its tower is decorated with carved pagan stones, stones that may have once decorated an earlier structure on the site. The highlight inside the church is the magnificently carved tomb of the church’s founder, Alastair Crotach Macleod; the best preserved medieval wall tomb in Scotland.

Two of the carved panels are especially fascinating: one shows a highland galley (upper right). Another, below and to the left of the galley, shows Macleod's soul being weighed. I guess good deeds make for a fat soul. Macleod had a few sins to account for; including the massacre of 400 MacDonalds in a dank cave on Eigg on a snowy winter's day. In an effort to balance the scales Macleod built several churches. It all brings to mind these lines from Jethro Tull's Two Fingers:

I'll see you at the Weighing-In,
When your life's sum-total's made.
And you set your wealth in Godly deeds
Against the sins you've laid.

Alasdair Macleod's soul at the Weighing-In
In the morning, a sign that sea conditions were good, was the sight of the three St Kilda day-boats heading out at 8am. It was going to be a busy day on Kilda. With the boats gone the harbour was quiet as we enjoyed breakfast before heading up the Sound of Harris. Our destination wasn't St Kilda, but an island just as interesting; an island that's always a highlight of a visit to the Hebrides: Scarp of the Rockets.

To be continued...

Excited passengers looking forward to seeing St Kilda

The Kilda convoy leaves Leverburgh

Monday, June 12, 2017

Destination Eigg

On May 20th, under clear skies, the good ship Hjalmar Bjorge left the busy port of Oban to head up the Sound of Mull. Aboard were twelve guests looking forward to a ten day cruise around the Hebrides: Alan & Jacky, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Alan & Katherine, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William. The crew consisted of Skipper Mark, Anna, Cook Mark, and Guide Marc (a lot of Marks). This was my second guide-trip, and I was looking forward to sharing some of my favorite island walks.

Hjalmar Bjorge and sister ship Elizabeth G at Oban
We did not know it at the time, but over the coming days we’d visit eleven islands. Thirty miles out of Oban we tied up to the pontoon dock in Tobermory, where several guests enjoyed a stroll in town before settling in for the first night. My stroll was with Michael, and we went as far as the old ferry terminal at the west end of Tobermory. There I saw something I'd not seen before, a dredger unloading its vast haul of scallops. We saw several giant bags of scallops being lifted by crane off the rusting boat and into a waiting truck. The damage these dredgers do to the seabed is terrible.

In the morning the forecast confirmed what was suspected the day before, conditions would not allow us to head over to Mingulay as planned. So we decided to head north towards the Small Isles with hopes that conditions would improve later in the week to allow us to get out west. It's always exciting to pass Ardnamurchan point, the westernmost part of mainland UK. Our destination was Eigg, and as Mull receded behind us the Small Isles came into view; Rum off to the left, and Eigg to the right; reminding me of that line from the Skye Boat Song:

Mull was astern, Rum on the port, Eigg on the starboard bow.

In the past, all my visits to Eigg involved landing at Glamisdale on the southeast corner of the island. But this time was different. We made an exciting beach landing in Laig Bay on the west side.

Laig Bay (on a sunnier day)
Once life-vests were stowed above the beach in a waterproof bag we paid a visit to the beautiful St Donnan’s Church. St Donnan was the island’s saint who was martyred in the 5th century. I did notice something significant had changed since my last visit. Another of Scotland's 'buildings at risk' no longer existed, as there was no sign of the large rectory that once stood next to the church. When I saw it ten years ago some of the upper floors had pancaked down, and it was filled with nesting birds.

St Donnan's - rectory gone

Rectory to the left of St Donnan's in 2006

Inside St Donnan's
The church looked the same on the inside as before, with the exception that the ancient carved stones that used to be on the porch of Eigg Lodge are now on display in the church. That's a good thing, as they are no longer exposed to the elements. The bad thing is that the gem of the collection, the dual-carved cross-shrine slab, is mounted such that it is hard to see its older side. The newer side, with the beautiful Celtic cross, faces the interior of the church. While the noble, and much older, hunting scene is only a foot away from the wall, making it nearly impossible to see the carving. For a description of the cross-shrine see the April 15, 2015 post.

Cross-shrine now in St Donnan's - St Donnan pictured at upper left
The two sides of the cross-shrine (photographed when it was at Eigg Lodge)
From St Donnan's we followed the shore path north to Camus Sgiotaig: the scattering (or squeaking) bay, better known as the Singing Sands. Apparently the sands can disappear in the winter, hence the scattering name, but they never fail to return. A well trod foot track led to the head of the bay, where a large stile made it easy to cross the fence that divides the sandy grazing grounds from the shore. Once on the sand we slid our feet across the sand. It took some effort, and you had to scuff your boots at just the right angle, but when you did the sound was immediate, a squeaky (almost musical) squeal. The geologist Hugh Miller described the sands in The Cruise of the Betsey. He had not heard of them before, so his description (in 1844) is one of discovery.

I walked over it, striking it obliquely at each step, and with every blow the shrill note was repeat-ed. My companions joined me; and we performed a concert, in which, if we could boast of but little variety in the tones produced, we might at least challenge all Europe for an instrument of the kind which produced them.

Making music on the Singing Sands

The Singing Sands on a sunnier day
Once our legs tired of making music (of a sort) we hiked up the hill pass Bealach Thuilm to enjoy a windy view north to a fog covered Skye.

The view from Bealach Thuilm
On our way back to the shore we passed the house known as Howlin, which has a fantastic view of the jagged mountains of Rum. J.R. Tolkien stayed in the house for a while, and it’s said the dramatic skyline of Rum (which you can see in Singing Sands photo) was inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

An easy road walk took us back to Laig Bay, where we donned our lifejackets. Soon Mark and Anna motored in on the inflatable to take us back to Hjalmar Bjorge. It was getting late in the day as the engines were fired up, and we set off on a northwesterly course. An hour's cruising took us to the shelter of Rum’s Loch Scresort, where the anchor was dropped and we settled in for a delicious Sunday Roast, followed by nightfall over Rum.

Loch Scresort - Rum
The forecast the next morning indicated things were improving. So we motored out of Loch Scresort to head for the Sound of Harris: the gateway to the outer isles.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Lismore Wander

I arrived in Oban on May 17. The ten-day cruise I was guiding did not leave until the 20th, so I had a full day to wander, followed by a day of packing. The wander had to be on an island. I had some unfinished business to attend to on Lismore - and so Lismore it was. The unfinished business was to find the grave of Alexander Carmichael, the author of that amazing collection of Gaelic culture: Carmina Gadelica. This is the Wikipedia entry on Carmina Gadelica:

Carmina Gadelica is a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, literary-folkloric poems and songs, proverbs, lexical items, historical anecdotes, natural history observations, and miscellaneous lore gathered in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909. The material was recorded, translated, and reworked by the exciseman and folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912).

Over the years I'd been to Lismore several times, and on a couple of those visits I searched the burial ground at Clachan trying to find Carmichael's grave. I think I examined every readable tombstone, but was never able to find it. Although I did find a lot of Carmichaels, a common name on Lismore. In each of those visits there was no one around to ask where the grave was. But a recent internet search turned up a photo of his tombstone and, with the photo in hand, I set off to visit Lismore.

Lismore ferry at Oban
In spring the Oban ferry runs to Lismore four times a day. I caught the 2pm run, and was afoot on Lismore at 3. From Achnacroish the shore path was followed north towards Tirefour Broch, and after a half-mile of walking I left the path at Balnagown. (See the September 16, 2015 post for a description of the walk to the broch.)

At Balnagown I wandered around its intact corn mill; its waterwheel still in place. I wanted to take a look inside, but the structure was plastered with 'keep out' signs.

Balnagown corn mill

From the mill I followed the road to Clachan, and entered the cemetery of Lismore Church. With the photo of Carmichael's tombstone in hand, I walked up and down the hilly burial ground looking at every stone. The photo showed that Carmichael's stone is unusual; a large, rectangular, bright grey upright slab. When I found it, near the south wall of the cemetery, it was obvious how I'd missed it in the past. Its shallow, incised lettering, was mostly unreadable. But a close look at the lettering on top revealed that it was Carmichael's grave. 

Alexander Carmichael's grave
The inscription was lengthy, and when I find the grave of a famous author I like to write down the complete inscription. But after several minutes I had to give up. The worn, lichen covered letters, were just too hard to decipher. Even so, finding the grave was exciting. The Celtic cross design carved on it is an exquisite monument to an amazing man. But his true monument is Carmina Gadelica, which you can find here: Carmina Gadelica.

I still had time before the last ferry of the day left for Oban at 6pm, so I headed down the the side road (unmarked) to take a look at Castle Coeffin (13th century). It is an amazing ruin, jagged stumps of walls and towers that look different depending on which side you're on. 

Castle Coeffin from the west (2017)

Castle Coeffin from the east (2017)
Castle Coeffin from the southeast (2006)
I spent a bit too much time climbing through the castle ruins and taking photos. A look at the watch showed I only had an hour before the last ferry back to Oban, and the ferry dock was three miles away. But it was three easy miles of (mostly) road walking, and I made it with five minutes to spare. Once back in Oban I started packing for my ten-day Hebridean cruise. The planned itinerary was to head west to Mingulay, north to the Flannans, and back to Oban, possibly via the Shiants or the Small Isles. Little did I know the wind would have other things in mind, and that the trip would be turn out to be one full of surprises.

Last ferry of the day arrives at Lismore

Friday, June 2, 2017

Back from the Isles of the West

Just back from the Isles of the West. Spent time on Lismore, Mull, Eigg, Harris, Scarp, the Ardveg (Lewis), Pabay Mor, Little Bernera, Great Bernera, Flannans, Canna, Muck, and Kerrera. The highlight was an exciting rope-landing on the Flannans. Will be posting on all these shortly.

Flannan puffins

Monday, May 8, 2017

To the Isles of the West

I will be offline for a while, somewhere in the Hebrides.

    Maybe Mingulay,
    Or possibly Pabbay,
    Might be the Monachs,
    Or stunning Scarp.

    Perhaps Pabay Mor,
    Or the far-flung Flannans,
    If lucky, Little Bernera,
    Or bedazzling Boreray.
    Could be savouring the Shiants,
    Or enjoying Eigg,
    Rambling on Rum,
    Or meandering round Muck.

If the wind and sea behave, maybe all the above - along with a surprise island or two.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cladh Choinnich - South Uist

Sometimes, while reading old books on the Scottish islands, you'll come across a short, and somewhat obscure mention of an historic site; a short mention that only serves to whet your appetite for more. But in many cases that appetite goes unrequited, because you can not find any more information. One such short mention is this from DDC Pochin Mould's West Over Sea:

Above Lochboisdale, to the northward, rises Beinn Ruigh Choinnich, the mountain of Kenneth's shieling; at its foot lies Cladh Choinnich, Kenneth's Field, the site of an old chapel.

Cladh usually means burial ground, and there is a Cladh Choinnich on the west end of Tiree associated with St Kenneth. Knowing some of the fascinating history of Kenneth, a contemporary of St Columba, I was very interested in seeing the site of another chapel and burial ground that may be associated with him. But my search for any more information only turned up a frustratingly brief CANMORE reference that says nothing remains of the chapel and burial ground. But, what if they missed something?  And so I put a visit to South Uist's Cladh Choinnich on my list of things to do.

I visited Cladh Choinnich last year as part of a two-day hike around Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (see the August 24, 2016 post). But the site can be seen by doing a three-mile out and back from the road west of Lochboisdale.

The walk starts at the first bend in the minor road that heads north from the B865, a half mile west of Lochboisdale. From there you will see a path that heads north next to the house at NF 7861 2023. The narrow path can be swampy, so the going is slow. After 15 minutes of walking you'll come to an old bridge at Aurotote that crosses the outflow of Loch a' Bharp.

Bridge at Aurotote
After crossing the bridge turn right and head east along the shore of the outflow. In a half mile you'll reach a large sheepfank that looks to have originally been a substantial farm.

After another 10 minutes of walking you will come to a cluster or jumbled stone ruins, almost completely covered with vegetation. You have reached Cladh Choinnich. 

Looking to Lochboisdale from Cladh Choinnich
There are several low, circular foundations, that may have been beehive type dwellings. In a heavily brackened area I found a low, rectangular arrangement of stones that could have been a chapel, or a burial ground enclosure. Or, for that matter, an ancient livestock pen. But something important was here at one time, something that is remembered in oral history, if not in written history.

Ruins at Cladh Chonnich

Cladh Choinnich

Enclosure?  Cladh Choinnich
For a sacred, but mostly forgotten place like Cladh Choinnich, with so little remaining, you need some imagination to picture it as it was 15 centuries ago. Which makes it all the more interesting. Adding to the delight of walking in to a place like this is that it is so far off the tourist trail that, chances are, you'll have it all to yourself. When I made my two-day hike around this corner of Uist I only encountered one other person, a shepherd out gathering his flock.

Since you've come as far as Cladh Choinnich, you might as well carry on a ways and climb Beinn Ruigh Choinnich. The summit is only a half-mile away (and 900 feet up). The view over South Uist and the Sea of the Hebrides is well worth the climb. But you might want to avoid doing it the first Sunday of August, as that's when the annual Beinn Ruigh Choinnich race is held. The 2016 race was cancelled, because on the first Sunday of August a terrible storm blew through the islands. The same storm that caused an oil rig to go aground off the west side of Lewis.

The record for the run from Lochboisdale to the summit of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich and back is 30 minutes. See the Ben Kenneth Hill Race website for more information.